Opting Out Of The Op-Ed Industrial Complex


In recent weeks, clickbait and linkbait have been on many people’s minds, due largely to a combination of that Mia Freedman Article on sexual assault, that Mark Latham Article on the Bachelor, and Buzzfeed’s Australian launch.

Clickbait pieces have eye-catching headlines that lure readers in order to increase pageviews and garner advertising revenue and linkbait is written so as to encourage people to share it on social media. The headlines don’t emerge by accident; their formulation is akin to a science. Neither are they dreamed up just for fun.

Clickbait is commonly mocked and derided. It has come to represent the enemy of quality media, the death of nuance, and surrender to the lowest common denominator. I have considerable sympathy with this reaction, but it often seems adrift from economic reality.

Capitalism exists, sites have to make money (certainly they must if they are to have any hope of paying writers) and so readers must be enticed somehow. Steve Hind argued recently in the Guardian:

"We live in a media environment where online eyeballs, in sufficient quantities, are still more valuable than paid subscribers … Clickbaiting is, at its core, about presenting a piece of content in the way that the media outlet thinks will maximise the number of people who see it … The giants of the industry are under serious threat and have to adapt quickly in the face of threats from more nimble rivals. Let's give them a pass on the clickbait, and keep the focus on the quality of the content."

Unfortunately, this argument misses that the concerns about clickbait largely relate to the nature of the content and its impact on our public conversation. Not all clickbait is amusing or laudable; as Liam Pieper notes over at The Lifted Brow, online editors have “realised that if they could cause offence to a group of people, those people were going to visit their site”. Pieper continues:

"News sites understand that the internet has allowed political and social movement to be commodified; that if you can get someone outraged about your story then you get free publicity. How many editors, working in a 24-hour news cycle with no resources, can resist the spike in hits that a good shitfight over cheap ideas will provoke? … picture an olde-timey editor in a press hat chomping on a cigar as he reads a writer’s copy and barking 'This is fucking garbage! Let’s lead with it'."

The cycle is fairly straightforward – publish something certain to upset, hurt or offend, and wait for people to denounce it. If you’re lucky, several articles will be written to refute the piece, to which the original author can in turn respond, and third parties can write additional screeds bemoaning our society’s “outrage addiction” and calling for more civility in our online discourse, to which pleas there will be further responses: this is the “op-ed industrial complex” at work.

Pieper concludes by arguing that we should disrupt this cycle by refusing to feed the trolls: “Every time you marshal your 140 characters and go to war on something asinine on [Mia] Freedman’s website, you make her richer. When you write a scathing reaction piece dissecting her latest war-crime…your readers idly click through to her site, the money tinkles into her accounts…”

He has a point – we’ve all done it, but funding the publication of ideas with which you vehemently disagree is certainly a strange activity. The sharing of offensive linkbait (“I can’t believe they published this racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist drivel!”) also leaves a bitter aftertaste, a sense that one is simply performing one’s own niceness and political identity: "See how appalled I am by bigotry; like me; agree with me; validate me!"

At the same time, of course, the outraged sharer actively circulates material which they are aware may hurt the very people with whom they express solidarity. As one commenter, “Maxine”, wrote underneath a piece on hipster racism:

"This article made me feel uncomfortable … I have now experienced yet another horrific act of racism I didn’t really have to experience today. And why? So that a bunch of middle class white hipsters, who likely won’t be enlightened anyway, get told off? This is a ‘see how racist people are’ post. It is not enough to justify reproducing and widely disseminating an act of racism."

There are, then, good reasons to refrain from participating in the outrage economy: to help stop the already wealthy accruing ill-gotten advertising revenue, and to halt the spread of material that may humiliate or upset people.

However, Just Say No solutions have limitations. Firstly, clickbait can be seen as a collective action problem which an individual cannot solve as it requires action on a broader scale; by acting alone he or she will forego (admittedly dubious) benefits enjoyed by others.

If one person refrains from reading particular websites and denies themselves the attendant waves of invigorating rage, this will not stop you or me from clicking, reading and sharing. Andrew Bolt would not give up writing and become a management consultant tomorrow simply because outraged lefties stopped hate-reading him and retweeting “Bolt Comments”. Can we imagine a successful consumer boycott? Could we all agree not to reward cynical trolling, and hold each other accountable?

Secondly, advice not to give the trollumnists what they want recalls ineffectual parental advice to bullied children to “just ignore them”. It would be great if this always worked but, as many a nerd can attest, it doesn’t.

Further, smugly dismissing all expressions of “outrage” at nasty articles as superficial is unhelpful and unfair. If a writer denigrates an entire ethnic group, encourages contempt or hatred of a gender or sexuality, or wilfully spreads harmful myths, is fury such a disproportionate reaction? Anger is a visceral emotion unlikely to be contained by admonishments not to feed the trolls, particularly when such advice issues from a place of bemused detachment à la Statler and Waldorf. The question is how we can best channel anger to achieve tangible outcomes: snarky hashtags might not be the answer, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

As banal issues go, clickbait is right up there – it certainly wouldn’t be number one on any sensible left-wing agenda. Yet it speaks to deeper things: the need for collective action, the duties humans owe to each other and the problems that market capitalism creates for us.

As with our age’s more important problems, the answer is complex: we need a progressive politics that transcends individualism and embraces solidarity. As our new federal government’s nature becomes clear, this need grows increasingly pressing. I don’t know what such a politics would look like (and I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter), but it’s definitely something worth thinking about during our daily engagement with our “real” and virtual world.

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